Summary: God shepherds his people perfectly through every path to the promised reward.
John chapter nine described the healing of a man born blind. Though false magicians and counterfeit miracle-workers could (no doubt) pull off clever fakes and forgeries, no one healed those blind from birth. Isaiah had prophesied Messiah would do so; Jesus answered the promise. Not everyone is pleased, however. The possibilities of a Messiah whom they could not control infuriated the religious leadership as their power and prestige diminished. And the escalating conflict prompted Jesus to teach about what we call “pastoral ministry.”
The word “pastor” comes from the Latin, pāscere, “to feed.” The same root appears in “repast,” a meal, a feeding – so a pastor literally “feeds” the flock. But Jesus speaks of more than feeding; he refers to the whole work of caring for God’s people, “shepherding” the flock bought at such a great price.
Because Jesus comes at this topic from a couple of different angles, it seems confusing. What unites his teaching is the illustration of sheep. Extending this analogy, Jesus stirs our imaginations about how we think of ourselves, of God, of Christ, of pastors, and even of our churches. [Read John 10.1-21. Pray.]
Phillip Keller drew from his many years as a shepherd to write, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, a book many Christians find beneficial. In one place he describes “cast” sheep: “This is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself…. Even the largest, fattest, strongest and sometimes healthiest sheep can become ‘cast’ and be a casualty…. A ‘cast’ sheep is a very pathetic site. Lying on its back, its feet in the air, it flays away frantically struggling to stand up, without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but generally it lies there lashing about in frightened frustration. If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep will die. This is but another reason why it is so essential for a careful sheepman to count his flock every day…. If one or two are missing, often his first thought is, ‘One of my sheep is cast somewhere. I must go in search and set it on its feet’” (54,61).
Keller reminds us that though the image of God’s people as sheep is common in the Bible, it is not completely complementary. From all accounts, sheep are helpless animals of limited intelligence. They are timid and can be startled by the slightest sound; but at other times they are so stubborn that nothing moves them.
Pastor John MacArthur observes that “sheep are the most helpless, defenseless, straying, and dirty of animals. They require constant oversight, leading, rescue, and cleaning or they will die. Being a shepherd was good training for leading people.”
These characteristics led Dr. Bob Smith, professor of philosophy at Bethel College, to say that the existence of sheep alone disproves evolution – they could not survive any battle for the fittest. (Quoted in Hughes, John, in loc.).
In spite of the negative connotations, however, God identifies us “sheep” and himself the “shepherd.” When preaching on this passage, John MacArthur began his sermon by identifying 71 different Biblical names and titles for Jesus (everything from “Amen” to “Word of Life”). Then he said, “perhaps his most endearing and intimate title is ‘Shepherd’” (Commentary on John, in loc.). Calling us “sheep” might not feel like a great complement; but being the “good shepherd” greatly exalts God’s care and compassion. The Good Shepherd leads us to the green pastures and cool waters of heaven. To receive that blessing, we must respond to two truths.
1. We Must Recognize a Caring Shepherding Ministry
In the first verses of John 10, Jesus contrasts poor pastors with good ones; then in verses 11-18 he contrasts poor pastors with himself. But self-focused leaders were not first exposed by Jesus. Centuries earlier, God commanded Ezekiel to rebuke the pastors of his day for the same reason.
Ezekiel 34.2-5: Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…. Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.
Nor did this problem end with Jesus. The Apostle Paul warned the early church of the same danger.
Acts 20.29-35: I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.